January 8, 2013
Schiff Hardin LLP pro bono client Bennie Starks was fully exonerated on Jan. 7, 2013, when Lake County, Ill., prosecutors dismissed one final charge and officially dropped his case. Mr. Starks spent 20 years in prison for a sexual assault crime he did not commit and which scientific evidence proves he could not have committed. Dismissal of the final charge, aggravated battery, affirms Mr. Starks’ innocence, clears him entirely of this wrongful conviction and ends the nightmare he has been living since the 1980s.
Ronald S. Safer, managing partner, led the Schiff Hardin defense team, which included Brooke M. Schaefer and paralegal Arthur Mitzel, as well as former Schiff Hardin attorneys Theresa M. Williams and Jessica K. Fender. Attorneys with the New York Innocence Project, Chicago-based criminal defense firm Stone & Associates, and Lauren Kaeseberg also represented Mr. Starks in collaboration with Schiff Hardin.
Mr. Starks in 1986 was wrongfully convicted of criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery of a woman in Lake County, Ill., and sentenced to 60 years in prison, despite numerous inconsistencies in the victim’s testimony and the State serology expert’s dubious analysis of the forensic evidence. When subsequent proper scientific analysis of the DNA evidence proved that Mr. Starks did not and could not have committed this crime, an Illinois appeals court freed Mr. Starks in 2006 and ordered a new trial. On May 15, 2012, prosecutors dropped sexual assault charges against Mr. Starks and stated he would not be retried in this case.
A timeline of events leading to Mr. Starks’ freedom and full exoneration is as follows:
- 1986 – Bennie Starks is convicted of criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery of a 68-year-old woman—despite numerous inconsistencies in her story—and sentenced to sixty years in prison.
- 1996 – The New York Innocence Project takes on Mr. Starks’ case and new DNA technology proved that semen found on the victim’s underwear was not from Mr. Starks. This information was contrary to the State serology expert’s testimony in 1986.
- March 2002 – Mr. Starks filed a motion for a new trial based on the new DNA evidence. The trial court denied his motion and Mr. Starks appealed.
- March 2006 – The Second District Appellate Court of Illinois reversed Mr. Starks’ criminal sexual assault conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. After spending 20 years in prison, Mr. Starks was released on bond pending his new trial.
- July 2010 – The New York Innocence Project reached out to Schiff Hardin, asking that the firm lead Mr. Starks’ defense in the new trial.
- September 2010 – Since the victim in this case had since died, Schiff Hardin’s defense team filed a motion to preclude the use of the victim’s testimony from the 1986 trial because doing so would constitute a violation of Mr. Starks’ Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him.
- January 5, 2011 – The trial court ruled in Mr. Starks’ favor, finding that the State’s use of the victim’s trial testimony would indeed be a constitutional violation.
- March 2011 – The State appealed the trial court’s finding that the State’s use of the victim’s trial testimony would be a constitutional violation. The Starks team appealed an issue regarding the aggravated battery conviction.
- December 7, 2011 – The appellate court heard oral arguments from Ron Safer on the issue regarding the victim’s trial testimony.
- February 14, 2012 – The appellate court issued a favorable opinion for Mr. Starks on the issue regarding use of the victim’s trial testimony.
- May 14, 2012 – The appellate court heard oral arguments from Ron Safer on the issue regarding the aggravated battery conviction.
- May 15, 2012 – Prosecuting attorneys at a brief hearing dropped sexual assault charges against Mr. Starks and affirmed he would not be retried in this case.
- June 20, 2012 – The appellate court issued a favorable ruling for Mr. Starks on the aggravated battery conviction issue.
- August 24, 2012 – The appellate court denied the State’s petition for rehearing.
- November 28, 2012 – The Illinois Supreme Court denied the State’s petition for leave to appeal.
- January 7, 2013 – Prosecutors dismissed the final remaining aggravated battery charge, fully exonerating Mr. Starks.
The New York Innocence Project team included Barry Scheck, Vanessa Potkin and Lauren Kaeseberg (who began work on the case as a law student intern and is now a licensed attorney and member of the defense team). Jed Stone and John Curnyn of Stone & Associates rounded out the team.